President Biden will make a high-stakes trip to Europe later this week to attend an extraordinary summit of NATO heads of state, along with a special gathering of the Group of Seven (G7) nations and a session of the European Council. It will be a mix of old and new. The United States will be tempted to resurrect its old role as the unquestioned leader of NATO and Europe’s primary security guarantor — 100,000 American troops are now in Europe, the largest number in nearly two decades.
But a new Europe is emerging from Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine: European allies are ramping up defense spending, sending military aid to Ukraine, and dispatching reinforcements to NATO’s eastern flank.
Though some have called for Biden to “lead from the front,” a transatlantic relationship characterized by American dominance, and European dependence on U.S. military capabilities, is no longer sustainable. The war in Ukraine shows that the United States is dangerously overstretched. Put simply, Washington cannot continue to underwrite European security if it is to counter China’s growing power and assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific.
Fortunately, the European security landscape is radically different from that of the Cold War era—Russia is not only nowhere near the military threat to Europe that the Soviet Union once was, and America’s European allies are also in a much better position to share the defense burden.
Importantly, the war in Ukraine has demonstrated the limits of Russian military power. Despite a decade of reforms and more defense spending, the Russian military still lacks basic combined arms proficiency — the ability to use different combat arms in coordination, with tanks, artillery, and aircraft supporting the infantry. Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine has been a military debacle, plagued by planning failures, logistical problems, low troop morale, and the absence of air superiority. The war shows that Russian forces cannot quickly seize territory against a badly outnumbered and outgunned defender, much less against NATO opposition.
This more manageable Russian threat is also within Europe’s wherewithal to contain. NATO Europe’s combined economies are more than eight times larger than Russia, and, even before the war in Ukraine, they collectively outspent the Russians on their militaries. Admittedly, European militaries still have some capacity shortfalls, but so long as the United States continues to contribute intelligence assets and naval forces, as well as a nuclear umbrella, they are powerful enough to counter Russia. This would give Washington a free hand to focus on the Indo-Pacific region.
The time has come to strike a new transatlantic bargain, in which European allies assume greater responsibility for their own security and defense and the United States becomes more willing to share military leadership of the alliance. This week’s summits present an ideal moment to move toward a more equal partnership between the United States and its European allies.
Biden should make three offers in Brussels: First, to make sure that Europe sustains its defense reawakening in the years to come, the Biden administration should be honest with allies about the limits of American military support. The war in Ukraine has created massive instability in Europe, and it will take some time for European militaries to close long-standing capability gaps. The United States has initially provided a large portion of NATO reinforcements to the eastern flank because it can deploy more rapidly than most European armies, even though these forces are coming from the other side of the Atlantic. After the war, however, the alliance will need to transition the bulk of this troop presence to the Europeans themselves, so the United States can focus on China. To keep Europe’s expectations of the United States in check, President Biden should propose clear benchmarks and a timeline for gradually transferring primary responsibility for NATO’s deterrence and defense posture in the east to its European members.
Second, Biden should propose the appointment of a European officer to NATO’s top military position, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), which has, until now, always been an American. For European allies to assume primary responsibility for their defense, NATO’s defense planning and command arrangements must become more explicitly European as well. In this new arrangement, a European officer should assume high command of the alliance, with the Commander of U.S. European Command serving as a deputy with nuclear responsibilities. Such a move would signal that the United States remains firmly committed to and continues to participate fully in the alliance, even as it occupies a less dominant position within it.
Finally, Biden should propound loud and unambiguous support for European defense cooperation at the European Council, where, on Monday, it adopted a new security and defense strategy paper, the “Strategic Compass.” Endorsing its vision for greater European strategic autonomy, Biden should make clear that Washington views the European Union’s defense initiatives, including the European Defense Fund and Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), as vital to building a stronger European pillar of NATO. To put action behind his words, he should prioritize finally concluding an administrative arrangement with the European Defense Agency, so the United States could take part in the agency’s projects aimed at developing European capabilities and thereby foster a transatlantic industrial base.
Europeans are ready to lead NATO. The United States should encourage them.
Kelly A. Grieco (@ka_grieco) is a resident senior fellow with the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
Alec Evans is a Young Global Professional with the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.